The Look Book

by Chris Sickels (Red Nose Studio)
ISBN: 9781581809404

The form factor and presentation say a children’s book (and the Library of Congress says “juvenile literature”) but this has a creepy vibe to it that is a bit at odds with that expectation. I think that is a good thing; the tilted, not quite right nature of the story and images worked for me. To be fair, they’d probably work for the right kind of kid, too.

Good children’s books aren’t just cutesy. They are disarming, so can reach deep and touch grownups who are open-minded enough to read them (think Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree), or are full of wry and not just laugh out loud humor (think The Very Persisten Gappers of Frip). I really liked this book, but I’m not saying it reaches the level of those two — they are two of my favorite books — though it is several steps in the direction of Frip.

The word play that drives the story (“Ian saw a bird soar overhead” “Ann saw a bird with a sore head”) lends itself to some gory but fun illustrations. (You really notice the red with the saturated colors.) The illustrations are handmade miniatures, photographed at interesting angles and depths of focus.

If you have an odd kid in your life, or know a grownup who was an odd kid, they might appreciate this book and its amusing story about overcoming boredom.

The Incredible Book Eating Boy

by Oliver Jeffers
ISBN: 9780399247491

This was the third book for Jeffers, but the fourth of his I’ve read. (I started with The Great Paper Caper, then Lost and Found, and couldn’t wait to get my hands on his latest The Heart and the Bottle — reading in order isn’t necessary.)

The humor and absurdity is more overt in this book, the emotional resonance not nearly as strong. That’s okay; it’s fun. The artwork is unmistakably Jeffers, with his odd noses, textural collage details, but not quite this time penciled legs. This may be the best book to start with if you are sharing his work with an actual little kid, especially one who is not how interested they are going to be in books just yet.

The Heart and the Bottle

by Oliver Jeffers
ISBN: 9780399254529

Last year I fell in love with The Great Paper Caper and then Lost and Found so I started looking forward to the release of this book as soon as I heard about it.

This book has the things I loved about the those — the whimsy, the penciled stick legs, the ability to touch something real — and still has its own story tell. It is about curiosity, loss, making safe rational decisions that cut you off from your feelings, growing up, and getting your sense of wonder back.

It is a beautiful book, too. It does one of my favorite things for an illustrated children’s book — the paper dust jacket is different from the book’s cover. The colors and textures encouraged me to spend time on each page. The way Jeffers managed to evoke both a symbolic and anatomic heart was a neat feat, too.

Highly recommended, not just for kids.

Lost and Found

by Oliver Jeffers
ISBN: 0399245030

My copy of The Great Paper Caper still hasn’t made it to what will be its spot on the shelf, because I keep rereading it. Which is probably why, when my partner went to get me a little present because I was sick, she brought home Lost and Found.

Well, that and the penguin. And the story itself: it’s about loneliness, and connection, and undertaking arduous journeys so you can learn what is really needed, and how even if it seems obvious once you know this doesn’t bother you.

I could go on to talk about all sorts of lessons I suppose you could teach kids based on this book, but I won’t. I won’t because Jeffers isn’t the least bit preachy or smug, and I think talking about that stuff might make it seem like he is. I’ll just say as much as you want to put into the story, whether that is a little or a lot, the story will give back to you.

Also, I will admit that I love what Jeffers does with the color blue, and how he draws the boy with stick legs, and how even though his style is simple he can still make a penguin appear crushingly sad, but not so sad you can’t bear it.

The Great Paper Caper

by Oliver Jeffers
ISBN: 0399250972

I was poking around the bookstore when I saw this, and I had to bring it home because it made me happy.

The cover features a bear wearing a jaunty red cap resting his arms on an axe handle. He’s surrounded by blue winter sky, you can see bare winter trees in the distance, and three stumps near him. He sort of ends funny: he’s standing not on powerful bear hind legs, but penciled in stick legs.

The Great Paper Caper is an illustrated children’s book, and according to the blurb on the back cover (which also features a stick-legged owl and a beaver with a magnifying glass), it is “a thrilling tale of mystery, crime, alibis, paper planes, a forest, and a bear who wanted to win.” As they say, it does what it says on the tin.

I just love the charmingly odd illustration style — everyone is stick-legged, even the duck, but the duck has orange stick legs — which manages to capture all the right details but only the right details. The book is also funny: imagine a police lineup with the aforementioned bear, a polar bear, a koala bear (holding a “not me” sign) and a teddy bear; imagine finger-pointing stick-legged animals with ridiculous alibis; imagine the forest animals trying to call the police from a red British phone box.

The book isn’t heavy on delivering a message, so don’t be scared off by the “‘green’ story” bit on the flap. If it teaches a lesson, it might be “don’t be an ass” or “if you steal you’ll make people mad, get caught, and have to make reparations” or “learn how to make a decent paper airplane”. If you read this to really observant young people, they may ask why a pig appears to be frying up bacon, or why a person’s nose is at the top of their forehead, or do ducks really sit under those helmet hairdryers, or why is that owl facing the tree trunk, did the owl get a timeout? These would all be perfectly reasonable questions under the circumstances.

I highly recommend this book if you appreciate whimsy (not the sickeningly cute tries to be whimsical but isn’t kind, the good kind) and need a little book happiness. Yes, it is aimed at children, but as a broad-minded reader you won’t be afraid to sally forth to that section of the bookstore and find this book. It would probably do you good to look around while you are there.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

by Sherman Alexie
ISBN: 9780316013680

I read Alexie’s short story collection The Toughest Indian in the World a few years ago and really liked it. Then I read Flight, a novel that should not have worked, but was nevertheless brilliant. So when I heard Alexie had won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, I was curious.

It isn’t that I didn’t think he could pull it off (though skilled writers can’t necessarily do it: consider Winterson’s Tanglewreck), but I did wonder what it meant that it was a young adult book.

Aside from creating a compelling story – which this absolutely is, full of awkwardness and pain as it seems only teen years can be – Alexie has created a real gift with this book. He is teaching struggling younger readers about hope, and how you have to pursue it. He is teaching them about the power of books, and how can you find that power anywhere, even in tiny unexpected places.

He manages to do this while having his main character get the crap beaten out of him, play basketball, and try and survive his freshman year of high school. He draws comics to make sense of his world (and yes, we get to see them). Arnold Spirit – Junior – he’s that kind of geek. He’s a sensitive kid. He cries easily. He throws up before the basketball games he plays in. And since he’s a poor Indian kid living on the rez, of course he falls for a beautiful white girl who seems to have everything. He has to make impossible decisions. Things generally do not go well for this kid, in fact they go heartbreakingly not well. And yet.

The magic and gift of the story is in the and yet. It isn’t cheesy – Alexie earns everything – it’s funny. His characters, teenagers mostly, impart some real wisdom:

“But you should approach each book — you should approach life — with the real possibility that you might get a metaphorical boner at any point.”

Alexie is a genius. He’s also prolific, and I fully intend to read everything else of his I can get my hands on. He consistently writes stories that make you cry yet give you hope.

Wonder Bear

by Tao Nyeu
ISBN: 9780803733282

This children’s book should not, like most so-called children’s books, be considered a valuable book only for children.

Who among us could not use some magic seeds, flying monkeys, and fantastic sea creatures? Who wouldn’t want to be tucked in by a wondrous friendly white bear? I suppose some wouldn’t. You boring folks with no imagination or whimsy will probably want to skip this book.

Everyone else: why wouldn’t you want to see this book? Wordless adventures are fun, because you can tell yourself a story every time you go through the book. Sure, it makes sense (because monkeys encapsulated in bubbles do make sense, if you have the right frame of mind) on its own, but it also invites play and storytelling.

The visuals are captivating and the colors are strong, all blues and greens and oranges with stark white (the bear). There’s something I can’t quite put my finger on about how they come together that makes this different from other illustrated children’s books. The cover is has a surprising texture to it, and if you remove it, it reveals one of my favorite things about illustrated books – when the dust jacket doesn’t exactly match the cover, you see something new.

So… marvelous bear, monkeys, cephalopods, and fascinating pictures. Oh yes.

The Little Prince

by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
ISBN: 0156528207

I’ve been putting off writing this review for the longest time because, well — hasn’t everyone read this book by now? At least once? What else is there to say about it?

That it’s charming (really charming, without being at all smarmy)? That it will disarm cynical readers? Make you cry if you let it? That it is a small book, you could read it all in one sitting, but it will stay with you long after you put it down? I’m pretty sure all these things have been said about The Little Prince many, many times.

That doesn’t make them any less true.

I had a stack of books to read on vacation (most, I will confess, are still unread) and a few books set aside to read to get to vacation. This was one of those. I needed a shot of whimsy and true emotion and questioning the absurdity of most grown ups, and this book delivered it. It’s the kind of thing I shouldn’t read once, but probably once every few months.

If you haven’t read it in awhile, do yourself a favor. You probably need to see the not-really-very-good sketches (except for the boa constrictor) and be reminded.

In the course of this life, I have had a great many encounters with a great many people who have been concerned with matters of consequence. I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn’t much improved my opinion of them.

The Arrival

by Shaun Tan
ISBN: 0439895294

The more Shaun Tan books I read, the harder it gets to write the reviews. I don’t want to repeat myself, but things I’ve said before could apply equally to this book:

  • One of Tan’s gifts is his ability to create an understanding of potentially difficult topics that are generally thought of as adult (depression, hope, alienation) but are, I think, quite appropriate for children.
    (The Lost Thing)
  • His pictures provide the first-gasp oh experience as well as delights that come with careful discovery.
    (The Rabbits)
  • [Children] need to know, to be reminded in stories the way adults do, that you can recognize fear and unhappiness and that those conditions don’t need to last forever, even though it feels that way sometimes.
    (The Red Tree)

See, Shaun Tan really is that good.

His books are visual and emotional wonders, and The Arrival is no exception. It is wordless, but nothing of the story is lost in the translation to pictures. In fact it makes the plight of the characters more acute, as they are immigrants struggling to communicate, to fit in, to share their stories. To describe the imagery (sepia tones, sketched, magical and ominous landscapes) doesn’t feel like doing it justice.

If you haven’t seen Shaun Tan‘s work, you have a world to explore, one that will be worth every minute you invest in it. Tan creates strange cities, marvelous creatures, and intricate and beautiful images to tell important stories. Highly recommended.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

by J. K. Rowling
ISBN: 978-0545010221

Though I’ve written reviews for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (I read the first four before I started this blog) I wasn’t sure I was going to write one for this, the seventh book. I say this even though I loved this book — I felt Rowling was true to the story I thought she was telling, and I love that I could let myself get caught up in it.

But it seems half the English speaking (and a good portion of the non-English-speaking) world is reading or by now has read the book — and at this point, either you are a Harry Potter fan or you just don’t care. A review probably won’t change that; it probably shouldn’t. On the other hand, it seems so many series start out well but you lose interest before they finish up (Lemony Snickett, anyone?), or you just wait indefinitely for the end (insert your favorite drawn out sci fi series here) that it is worth noting that J. K. Rowling not only finished up her seven book series, she ended it well.

So why do I say that? Well first off, most of what I said in my review of book six that I hoped was coming in book seven actually happened. (This doesn’t make me smart; it makes J. K. Rowling smart.)

[Just in case you are one of the few people who doesn’t know what happens, who dies, etc. in book seven, this is your warning: spoilers, lots of ’em, are next up.]

I read this book in less than thirty-six hours: my partner and I picked up a copy the morning it came out and took turns reading chapters out loud, stopping to sleep that night but otherwise reading nonstop until it was finished. Because I had to know. Being in that position with a book is hella fun. It also makes it difficult to write anything like a proper review, so instead I’ll talk about what I loved, what surprised me, and what I think the best part was.

Things I loved

  • We read it out loud, and several times the person not reading uttered what turned out to be the next line
  • Dumbledore became more complex and thus more human
  • I was really missing McGonagall, but when she finally showed up, she was exquisite
  • Harry accepts responsibility, yet doesn’t really want power — that is a rare thing
  • Neville became the hero I always wanted him to be

Things that surprised me

  • Hermione effectively orphans herself
  • The Malfoys really did love their son Draco that much
  • They body count was really high (Mad-Eye Moody, Fred Weasley, Tonks and Lupin — and that’s naming most, not all names)

The best part

I won’t pick a single scene — though Ron’s return, or Molly’s fight to the death with Bellatrix do spring to mind. I won’t pick a single result, either, though Harry surviving and that not feeling like a cheat is a major accomplishment. Thing is, I don’t think the best part of this book (or the entire series) can be captured in one scene or one idea.

No, the best part is something that happens outside the books. It happens when people excitedly talk about, theorize, even fight over the books because we believe in Harry Potter’s world so completely doing so doesn’t seem like a crazy thing to do. (Though the Making Light thread on HP7 might be pushing it .)

The best thing is the part where I email a book group and tell them the bit where Harry plays dead and he thinks they are gonna mess with his body felt very Aslan to me, even though they did shave Aslan while he was still alive; then I go on to say the whole willing to sacrifice himself thing was very Aslan, only the Greatest Lion knew the deal he was making, and Harry didn’t. The best thing is that this book group was going to shut down, but no one could bear not to discuss book seven, so we waited. The best part was how, a week after finishing the book, Lisa and I are walking around Salem still talking about it, and I float the idea that Harry would have won in the end not because he was the wand’s master, but because he was the one who had enough soul left to cast spells and mean them. (When Harry first uses the cruciatus curse on Bellatrix he fails; we learn from her that you really have to mean it. There is no doubt Voldemort means to kill Harry — but does he have enough soul left to utter the killing curse and have it work?) The actions Harry and the inhabitants of his world take or fail to take matter to readers like me, because we bought into Rowling’s story and believed in her world.

It was a fantastic ride, I’m glad I took it. (And I’ll be taking it again: I’ve already reread the first book.)